I last read this book nearly six and a half years ago; when my friend Eleanor brought it up recently to share a quote from it someone had passed on to her, it felt like perfect time for a re-read. In those six odd years, I’ve read several of Solnit’s books and have come to appreciate her particular way of getting at a subject, where bits and pieces of anecdotes and research fuse together into a nuanced perspective. Much of her work is grounded in history and various arenas of activism, so this feels very personal and nostalgic in comparison, yet I think it has more of those elements than her more recent book, The Faraway Nearby....more
After reading Against Interpretation, these stories are as cerebral and absent of symbolic content as I expected. Sontag plays with form rather than creating complex plots laden with meanings, and there isn’t an extensive amount of descriptive detail. Nearly all the stories are written from some kind of ﬁrst person perspective, though not in the traditional narrative sense in which it enables a feeling that the reader is somehow inside that character’s mind, privy to any passing thought. In “Old Complaints Revisited,” the narrator admits to purposefully obfuscating their identity:
But I don’t want to go into too much detail. I’m afraid of your losing the sense of my problem as a general one.
That’s why I have...more
From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art. We can only quarrel with one or another means of defense. Indeed, we have an obligation to overthrow any means of defending and justifying art which becomes particularly obtuse or onerous or insensitive to contemporary needs and practices.
This is the case, today, with the very idea of content itself. Whatever it may have been in the past, the idea of content is today mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism.
Despite being fascinated by Susan Sontag, I haven’t actually read much of her work, so it was inevitable that at some point I would end up with three...more
I expect even some of the most stalwart of Solnit’s fans would not consider this her best book, as it seems a bit scattered, though it’s similar in general feel to A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Its “Russian-doll” structure functions less like burrowing deeper into the complexities of a diﬃcult period of her life and more like the tide retreating away from solid ground only to ﬂow back in. Yet for me the timing of this book was uncanny, as I kept ﬁnding topical moments throughout. Solnit has a lot to say about telling our stories, of the vagaries of illness, of the possibilities of empathy, of the slow pace of change, and of the isolated time she...more
Translator Iain Galbraith’s introduction is one of the best parts of this book, as it includes “an example … of the diﬃculty of translating Sebald’s poetry”:
Many of the poems in this volume—which opens with a train journey—reenact travel “across” various kinds of land and water (even if the latter is only the ﬂuid of dreams). Indeed, several, as the writer’s archive reveals, were actually written “on the road,” penned on hotel stationery, menus, the backs of theatre programs, in cities that Sebald visited.
He goes on to talk about a poem titled “Somewhere” that involves a small town called Türkenfeld, which is an area Sebald would have passed through often, yet:
… it is well for a translator to...more
Recounting nine years of living in protective custody after the Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced him to death, Rushdie’s memoir is beﬁttingly hefty at over 630 pages. About three-quarters of the way into it, the tediousness of his ongoing ﬁght to live freely comes through all too clear. In addition to describing the particulars of living constantly with a team of security personnel and the various meetings to try to force Iran to overturn the fatwa, Rushdie also covers general life stories including his several marriages and inﬁdelities as well as his writing process and various parties he attended and celebrities he met, despite the restrictions to his personal freedom.
I met Kat back in zine times, when people made friends through trades and letters, and those friends were often a combination of allies, collaborators, and maybe even the cool cousins you might not have had in your given family. As such I distinctly remember getting one of Kat’s zines and going to rent Breathless because she used stills from the ﬁlm as background art — a quietly expansive moment in my ﬁlm appreciation history. It was telling reading this collection of essays from Kat’s departed blog NOGOODFORME that I was familiar with most of the ﬁlms she mentions either because I reﬂexively continued following her suggestions or I developed similar interests.
NOGOODFORME started as a fashion blog...more
There are many unbelievable things in this epistolary novel inspired by Maria Semple’s move from LA to Seattle, but maybe the biggest is that average people would write such long, detailed emails — and, at times, faxes? Semple found Seattle’s crunchy, sustainable culture hard to stomach at ﬁrst, which is how the book begins with a report card from a private school where the grades are all phrased around “excellence” so as not to erode any kids’ self-esteem. These digs at West Coast liberalism can be fairly entertaining, but it makes it a bit harder to develop much connection to the characters through the “satire of privilege.”
The family at the center of the book includes the stunningly brilliant child Bee,...more
If I was a poet, I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice, could not evade its anachronism and marginality and so constituted a kind of acknowledgment of my own preposterousness, admitting my bad faith in good faith, so to speak. I could lie about my interest in the literary response to war because by making a mockery of the notion that literature could be commensurate with mass murder I was not defaming the victims of the latter, but the dilettantes of the former, rejecting the political claims repeatedly made by the so-called left for a poetry radical only in its unpopularity.
It’s clear early on that either the insuﬀerably narcissistic poet that centers this story...more
I hadn’t thought about Ruth Ozeki much in the many years since I read My Year of Meats. A Tale for the Time Being has some comparable elements, including multiple points of view and semi-parallel story lines as well as similarities to Ozeki’s life and identity. Though this one takes it a bit further with a main character named Ruth who lives with her husband Oliver on an island in British Columbia, apparently similar to the one Ozeki lives in when she’s not in New York City.
Ruth is struggling to work on a memoir about her mother’s long illness and death when she discovers a lunchbox washed up on the shore containing several mysterious things, including a diary...more